Review: “Fury”

While it borrows liberally from Saving Private Ryan (aka the All Quiet On the Western Front of modern war movies) and doesn’t exactly rise above its obvious formula, David Ayer’s Fury is nevertheless an effective WWII drama that reminds that war is hell – specifically, one soaked in blood, mud, fire, and death. It’s a tad predictable and its characters are overly familiar archetypes, but the action and drama still delivers, and its pointed observations about the ultimate costs of war rattle in one’s head long after the credits role.

Brad Pitt stars as Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier, commander of “Fury”, a Sherman tank that is part of the Allied forces pushing their way deep into the heart of Nazi Germany in April 1945. The war is waning and Germany is soon to collapse, though the Nazis refuse to admit it; SS forces are putting up a relentless fight, and they’re pressing women, children, and the elder into their ranks.

Collier’s crew has been together for years, starting with action in North Africa: Bible-quoting gunner Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf); driver “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña); and atavistic loader Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal). The film opens with them limping back to base after suffering the death of their secondary gunner, who’s replaced by Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a rookie clerk who’s never been in combat, let alone killed a man. He doesn’t want to be there, and the feeling is mutual.

The movie largely traces Norman’s learning curve as a combatant, forced to set aside his naivete and innocence in the face of the horrors of the final, desperate days of the war. Ayer’s three-act structure is an arresting and suitably unnerving one: As the crew embarks on a series of missions, Norman is introduced to combat and it damn near breaks him, followed by a pit stop in a newly liberated town that is set up as idyllic before quickly sliding into hateful, and concluded with an almost mythical last stand at a strategic crossroads.

Much of it is cliched – it’s hard to make a war movie that isn’t anymore – but Ayer makes a stab at spinning the cliches here and there, and largely succeeds in taking a contemporary approach to old material. He strips most of the romanticism from it and subverts much of what remains. Instead of stalwart square-jawed heroes, he opts instead for hardened men who’ve been ground down to the nub and running on little more than fear and adrenaline.

Pitt’s character is the antithesis of his role in Inglorious Basterds, and the supporting cast succeeds in fleshing out characters who are stereotypes on the surface and seething underneath. A particularly unsettling dinner scene during Fury‘s mid-point suggests that Collier’s crew hates him as much they love and respect him, using him as the focal point for their rage borne from the years of horror they’ve endured.

Ayer’s scripting credits include the recent cop drama End of Watch, the WWII submarine flick U-571, and the brilliant Training Day. He reportedly spent years researching and writing Fury, and the detail and grit involved give it a fine layer of verisimilitude, even while its story plays out like a more graphic issue of G.I. Combat or Sgt. Rock. The movie’s ethos is best summed up by Collier in a rare quiet scene: “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”